Box­ing fights Parkin­son’s

Pa­tients taught fight­ing skills and dance moves to com­bat neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­der

Times Colonist - - Life - BILL GRAV­E­LAND

CAL­GARY — Shirley Jager has a wicked right hook and iri­des­cent lime-green box­ing gloves and shoes.

Jager is 79 and has taken up box­ing as part of her own per­sonal bout against the rav­ages of Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

Parkin­son’s is a pro­gres­sive dis­or­der of the ner­vous sys­tem that makes it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to con­trol their move­ments, body and emo­tions.

It de­vel­ops grad­u­ally, some­times start­ing with a barely no­tice­able tremor in just one hand. Over time, med­i­ca­tion be­comes less ef­fec­tive and symp­toms be­come worse. Parkin­son’s is the sec­ond most com­mon neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­der in Canada af­ter Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

“I had it quite a while be­fore we re­al­ized that was what it was, but I didn’t go onto med­i­ca­tion un­til 2012,” Jager says.

“This has helped a lot. My pos­ture is bet­ter, my en­ergy is bet­ter. I did a lot of ex­er­cis­ing be­fore I got here, but I couldn’t get past a cer­tain point. I just couldn’t get any fur­ther un­til I came here.”

“Here” is what amounts to a box­ing boot­camp at Cal­gary’s Griz­zly Cage Box­ing and Fit­ness, where Darcy Ir­win is both a part­time drill sergeant and some­time cheer­leader as she puts her eight charges through their paces.

“Three squats,” she yells at Bob Charles when he ends up los­ing a game sim­i­lar to mu­si­cal chairs in which a soccer ball is passed from hand to hand. The others im­me­di­ately be­gin jump­ing jacks.

“They say you don’t get di­ag­nosed un­til about 80 per cent of the dam­age is done,” says Charles, who be­gan the box­ing pro­gram last fall. “When you’ve got some­thing like Parkin­son’s, you can’t al­ways do things the way that they’ve de­signed them, but a good trainer like Darcy can mod­ify things and make sure you don’t get hurt.”

Ir­win, who runs the gym with her hus­band, Wayne Richard­son, says the box­ers put up with the aer­o­bics and jump­ing rope, but re­ally can’t wait un­til they can start work­ing out on heavy punch­ing bags.

Box­ing em­pha­sizes bal­ance, foot­work, quick re­ac­tions and changes in di­rec­tion, hand-eye co-or­di­na­tion and aer­o­bic train­ing — all use­ful for peo­ple with Parkin­son’s.

“It’s such a dif­fer­ence from what it was when they first came in. Par­tic­u­larly when I watch them warm up, I see each per­son’s progress slowly chang­ing and that’s a re­ally nice mo­ment,” Ir­win says. “We’re start­ing to re­al­ize that the mind and the body are act­ing as a whole more than ever.”

There’s a slightly more rest­ful at­mos­phere across town where about 25 Parkin­son’s pa­tients are rock­ing slowly, back and forth to mu­sic at De­cid­edly Jazz Dance­works.

Jim Archibald, 69, re­ceived his di­ag­no­sis five years ago af­ter spend­ing years on the stage as an ac­tor. “This is the first real danc­ing that I’ve ever done,” he con­fides. “It’s some­thing to look for­ward to ev­ery week. Phys­i­cally, with Parkin­son’s, it’s a stiff­en­ing of joint mus­cles and things as it pro­gresses. This cer­tainly helps de­lay it and makes it much bet­ter.”

Vicki Wil­lis, one of the founders of De­cid­edly Jazz Dance­works, says she ini­tially only agreed to help set up the pro­gram, but got hooked.

“It has been so soul-feed­ing to do this. I love the chal­lenge of try­ing to fig­ure out ways through their blocks and through their habits and I love them all madly,” Wil­lis says. “It’s a beau­ti­ful thing. One of the par­tic­i­pants said: ‘This is our tribe.’ They love com­ing to­gether. They look for­ward to this. De­pres­sion is a huge part of the dis­ease and it’s lovely for all of us to get to­gether.”

Dr. Bin Hu, a pro­fes­sor in the clin­i­cal neu­ro­sciences depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary’s Cum­ming School of Medicine, has stud­ied Parkin­son’s for decades.

He is cur­rently look­ing at Am­bu­losono ther­apy, a mu­sicbased walk­ing pro­gram for peo­ple with Parkin­son’s that uses spe­cially cal­i­brated iPods to help par­tic­i­pants pay at­ten­tion to how they walk.

“The idea is pa­tients will have a small com­puter and have a sen­sor for when they walk. If your steps are get­ting smaller and smaller you tend to fall, and there’s an au­di­tory alert or the mu­sic will stop to re­mind you take big­ger steps which are more sta­ble,” said Hu, a mem­ber of the Hotchkiss Brain In­sti­tute.

“This app can mea­sure your step lengths through an al­go­rithm and then tell the iPod. The mu­sic will stop to re­mind you that your steps are too small.”

Hu said the num­ber of peo­ple in the mu­sic walk­ing pro­gram is quite small, so he is only cau­tiously op­ti­mistic. But ini­tial stud­ies sug­gest that us­ing the ther­apy con­stantly im­proves a pa­tient’s walk­ing and ben­e­fits ap­pear to last.

“They’re ac­tu­ally see­ing im­prove­ment. It’s re­versed. They’re get­ting bet­ter,” Hu said.

“If this is true, this is a ground­break­ing demon­stra­tion that this dis­ease can be beaten. For this par­tic­u­lar symp­tom, it’s equiv­a­lent to a cure.”

Parkin­son’s pa­tient Shirley Jager works out at Griz­zly Cage Box­ing and Fit­ness in Cal­gary.

Bob Charles, who joined the pro­gram at the Cal­gary box­ing club last fall, takes part in a work­out.

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